Authors vs Reviewers: Is Literary Criticism Really a Noble Pursuit?

By Power, Chris | New Statesman (1996), March 16, 2018 | Go to article overview

Authors vs Reviewers: Is Literary Criticism Really a Noble Pursuit?


Power, Chris, New Statesman (1996)


The Booker and the Best:

Discrimination in the Book World

Nicholas Clee

Amazon Publishing, 67pp, 1.19 [pounds sterling]

The Digital Critic:

Literary Culture Online

Houman Barekat, Robert Barry and David Winters

OR Books, 203pp. 14 [pounds sterling]

Reviews don't matter. "I never really trust reviews," said Karl Ove Knausgaard in a recently published interview. In his story "Doppelganger, Poltergeist", the late Denis Johnson, writing from the perspective of an ageing poet, comments that since dropping his "poet's persona" he has "masqueraded as a literary critic, and with a great deal more success, but criticism isn't real--it's not a real thing". WH Auden, introducing his 1962 collection The Dyer's Hand, wrote that: "There are people who are too intelligent to become authors, but they do not become critics." When considering the criticism of criticism, you needn't look hard to find equivalents to Michael Gove's comment, from June 2016, that "the people in this country have had enough of experts".

Of course reviews matter. That's easy and predictable enough for someone writing a review to say, but it can be proven. Reviews matter in two ways: as filters, and as shapers of opinion. In his 1991 book, U I, Nicholson Baker describes "book reviews, not books" as "the principal engines of change in the history of thought"; because no one has time to read all the books they want to, reviews must sometimes stand in for the thing itself. The more contentious point, about influence, can be divided into two questions: do they influence and if so is that influence beneficial or malign?

To prove the influence of reviews, gather some that mix things you know about and have formed an opinion on, and things about which you are ignorant--BBC Radio 4's Saturday Review, which considers a book, a film, a television show and an exhibition, is perfect for this. Listen to the programme and make a note of reviews you agree with, and reviews you disagree with. Repeat several times and a pattern will emerge: correcting for personal dislike (some critics just rub you up the wrong way), you will tend to agree far more readily with reviews of work that you have not experienced, than with those of work you know. I have shouted at the radio as a novel, seemingly wholly different to the one I read, is discussed. Equally, I have decided not to bother with a film based on judgements made on the same programme. This proves two things: reviews matter insofar as they have a concrete effect, and reviews are never simply "wrong" or "right".

Despite the modern quantification of criticism--exemplified by the Tomatometer score formulated by the film review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes--which can give a false impression of objectivity, a review is only ever an opinion. This is why good criticism always refers back to the work under review to support its points. As Auden writes, "So long as a man writes poetry or fiction, his dream of Eden is his own business, but the moment he starts writing literary criticism, honesty demands that he describe it to his readers, so that they may be in the position to judge his judgements." Bad criticism isn't about getting a particular work "wrong"; it's about failing to give a real sense of it, and replacing argument and justification with unsupported superlatives.

For some, criticism is the enemy of art. This was George Clooney's position when he told a Turkish journalist, "I'd like to see you make a film first before you get to talk about [Solaris]", and Samuel L Jackson's when he attacked the New York Times film critic AO Scott's review of The Avengers (which excoriated its "grinding, hectic emptiness, the bloated cynicism"). The spat inspired Scott to write Better Living Through Criticism, an interrogation and defence of his practice that considers, in part, what Scott calls "anti-critical discourse", which he traces back to Glaucon in Aristotle's Poetics. …

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